By Richard Louv May 16, 2016
Can you imagine sending your child to a public school where students invest a third of their day outdoors — and a lot of that time in the surrounding woods?
In April, CBS This Morning asked me to visit Chattahoochee Hills Elementary School, outside Atlanta, which serves primarily low-income children. One six-year-old boy, after spending an hour on one of the hiking trails/outdoor classrooms, rushed up to his teacher and exclaimed, “There’s so much nature out here and I only have two eyes and one brain and I think it’s going to explode!”
This remarkable school has shown more academic improvement, on average, across all subjects, than any other school in Fulton County, Georgia.
The CBS report, which I hope you’ll take a moment to view, underscores this unconventional wisdom: The greening of schools may represent the real cutting edge of education. To some, that statement is contrarian (but wait, isn’t technology supposed to be the cutting edge?); it also happens to be true. New research in the U.S. supports the claim. So does the ongoing dominance of international science achievement by Finnish schools, where kids spend even more time outdoors.
Clay Johnson, Chattahoochee Hills’ chairman of the board, is convinced, and he’s no back-to-the-earther. He’s a techie. He designed the online campaigns of two presidential candidates. He drives a Tesla. And he believes in the power of Vitamin N.
Over the past decade, we’ve seen the remarkable growth of a potent movement to connect children to the natural world. Across the U.S. and Canada and around the world, tens of thousands of people — parents, grandparents, pediatricians, teachers, and many others — are working to reduce what my books Last Child in the Woods (2005) and The Nature Principle (2011) defined as “nature-deficit disorder” — not a known medical diagnosis, but a way to talk about the effect of alienation from the natural world.
And every year since Last Child was published, more studies have demonstrated the power of experiences in the natural world to reduce the symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, build physical health and resilience, reduce stress and depression (in children and adults) — and even raise student standardized test scores. Much of this new evidence is correlative, not causal, but it’s rare for such a large number of studies to point in the same direction. Nature time is obviously not a cure-all, but it can be an enormous help, especially for children who are stressed by circumstances beyond their control. The rest of us benefit as well.
Now it’s time to double down, to move from increased public awareness to personal action. That’s the purpose ofVitamin N: The Essential Guide for a Nature-Rich Life. It offers 500 actions for enhancing the health and well-being of families and communities.
This companion handbook to Last Child in the Woods and The Nature Principle shows parents how they can put nature time on the family calendar, take a break from electronics, help their kids learn how to develop their “supersenses” (as many as 30 of them) — not a bad thing to explore in a society where so many children are being diagnosed with sensory processing disorders (SPD). There’s a lot more in the book, of course, including outdoor games from across cultures and time, adaptive activities fit for an array of abilities, how to explore nature in urban neighborhoods and the wild nearby, and how to be a “weather warrior” and a “hummingbird parent.” Also, how to create virtual clubs that arrange multi-family hikes and other nature activities. One club, in San Diego, now has a membership of well over 1,500 families, who feel safer and supported by others.
The movement isn’t only for parents. Each of us, and the organizations with which we are affiliated, can help create a nature-rich life. A single teacher who insists on taking students outside to learn can change a school, but thousands of networked “Natural Teachers” can transform education at school and at home. Working with parents, they can make real the vision of a natural playground or garden at every school, of schools that invest as much in the real as they do in the virtual. One librarian can plant the seeds for “Natural Libraries” that connect families to nature, and touch the lives of children with disabilities, and become hubs of bioregional awareness. One pediatrician (like Dr. Robert Zarr, who organized pediatricians in Washington, D.C.) who prescribes Vitamin N can lead to a network of pediatricians who do the same.
On a single inner-city block, one resident can organize neighbors to restore a patch of wildness or create a community garden, and feed an entire city’s spirit. Think of the difference that one faith-based organization could make by promoting a little Vitamin N for the soul, and then reaching out to other churches, synagogues, and mosques.
We need a network of mentoring grandparents and older “grandfriends” who remember what it’s like to build a fort or dip their toes in a stream or look up at the clouds and dream of the future, who do not want to take those memories with them when they leave this earth — and who commit to passing them on to the next generation. We can create a Worldwide Homegrown Park by planting ribbons of native plants that lace through our cities, nurturing biodiversity and human health — beginning in our own yards.
This is the power each of us has to help close the gap between human beings and the natural world, to heal children even as we help heal the world.
In 2012, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature declared children’s positive connection to the natural world a human right. I hope Vitamin N proves to be a useful tool to the good people who want to assure that right for all of us, and the responsibilities that come with that right.
Here are a few strategies for using Vitamin N to create a nature-rich life for your family, your community, and yourself:
Start your Vitamin N Plan by marking five of the 500 actions, and put them on the calendar. Beyond the initial five, select the actions you want to do most, even if you can’t do them right away. Sort them into actions you want to do for yourself, with one or more family members, and with your community. (Caution: One mother started marking the actions in her copy of Vitamin N and quickly gave up. She realized she was marking almost every action. That’s a good thing.)
Try the One-a-Day Vitamin N approach. One mother reports that her daughter gets up every morning, finds the (now beat-up) copy of Vitamin N, and picks one action a day that she wants to do — and does it. Sometimes the action involves others, sometimes it’s a solitary action. “We had to limit our daughter to one a day. Otherwise we would have been overwhelmed.” Her daughter is still going strong.
Pick low-hanging fruit, then climb higher. Once you or your family (or organization) has done five actions in the book, pick five more that are out of your comfort zone, and do those. Ask a family member or a friend to suggest actions from the book that they think are out of your comfort zone.
Use Vitamin N as a rallying point to start a family nature club. After downloading the free tool kit from C&NN, gather some parents who might be interested in creating such a club and hold a discussion (with pizza… or, okay, something healthier) at your home. Last Child in the Woods is also a good discussion starter, but Vitamin Ncuts to the chase of possible adventures for your new club.
Start creating your nature-rich home, yard, garden, school, or workplace. Set a goal of three months for a natural beauty makeover of where you live, work, learn, and play. The point here is to infuse your daily environment with natural elements, and surround your family and friends with the restorative power of nature.
Do Your Own Natural Beauty Makeover. Why not? Use Vitamin N as a guide to getting in better shape physically and psychologically. Create a green gym in your backyard or neighborhood. Pick the actions in the book that are appropriate for your life, then set monthly goals and see how you feel when you meet them.
Make Saturday your Vitamin N Challenge Day. Or pick another day of the week, but put it on your calendar; and make it a family tradition to set at least one day aside to do something new drawn from the book (or from other, similar books).
Keep a Vitamin N Diary. Track what you’re doing, how you’re doing it, and what you’re learning and experiencing. You can do this in writing or drawings or digital photographs — or even sound recordings (including the sounds of the nature you’ve experienced on your outings). Share pieces of your diary on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, or other social media; or start your own Vitamin N Blog; or write a guest blog post for the Children & Nature Network. Challenge others to take the Vitamin N Challenge, and then compare notes.
Use Vitamin N as a practical guide to making your community great for families and nature, by creating a nature-rich school, school yard, library, or faith-based organization. If you’re organizing a regional campaign to get kids and families outside, use it as your action manual. Challenge your city to become the best city in America for children and nature.
Create a Vitamin N Community Challenge Day for your school, extended family, place of worship, workplace, service club, or friendship network.
Let us know how you’re doing. Send us a note, a blog post, digital photographs, videos, drawings, or sound recordings to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Learn more about Richard Louv’s work at RichardLouv.com. In addition, The Children & Nature Network has compiled a large body of studies, reports, and publications that are available for viewing or downloading.
Richard Louv is co-founder and chairman emeritus of the Children & Nature Network. His newest book, Vitamin N, offers 500 ways to build a nature-rich life in urban, suburban, and rural communities. His other books include:Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder and The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age. Follow Richard Louv on Facebook and @RichLouv on Twitter.